How Does Oriental Medicine Diagnose Illness?


When a patient first comes in, he or she is asked several questions by the practitioner such as chief complaints, duration of illness, the patient’s thoughts on its etiology, past family history, his/her living environment, occupation and age. An assessment of their tongue and pulse follows and then the patient is asked to lie down on their stomach or back and certain areas of the body are palpated. Thus begins the treatment.


Many ask how a practitioner can make a diagnosis and treat it so quickly without having to do any laboratory tests such as blood and stool samples, X-rays, CT’s and MRI’s. Traditionally, there are four main components to making a diagnosis in Eastern medicine. These are: looking (visual inspection); listening and smelling; inquiry; and touching (pulse-taking and palpation).


In this type of assessment, tongue diagnosis and pulse-taking are not only the most unique methods in oriental medicine but they are also the most commonly used. The state of the tongue can be representative of the state of internal organs and bodily fluids. For example, a red tongue is indicative of much internal heat, and a pale tongue can indicate a lack of energy and tendency to be cold internally. A red-edged tongue suggests problems with the liver, while redness on the tip can be associated with heart problems. Grayness of the root of the tongue can point to less-than-optimal functioning of the kidneys.  A gray or black tongue requires immediate attention. A curled or twisted tongue can be associated with risks of paralysis.


People today are fascinated by the use of pulse readings in Eastern medicine. However, pulse reading has been effectively used for many centuries, and there are professional literature records of it which date back to the 1800’s.  There are 28 types of pulses that can express the internal state of our bodies. Typically, the pulse is read on both wrists in three locations called Chun, Guan, Chi. Understanding all 28 types is extremely difficult, but even just understanding their characteristics, such as floating, deep, slow, fast, slippery, taut, can be of use in treatment.


Skeptics question the accuracy of diagnosis from such methods. Modern diagnostic methods are more highly developed and we, at times, encourage patients to go to the hospital to get a more accurate diagnosis. However, even using the latest technology one must note that machines simply produce data, and the interpretation of such data is done by a human being which also leaves room for possible error.  Both approaches to medicine involve the possibility of error. Thus, Eastern diagnostic methods are just as valid, but better yet, they are more cost-effective than Western medicine.



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